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The Most Magnificent Muslims

Goa and the Great Mughal

edited by Jorge Flores and Nuno Vassallo e Silva
Lisbon: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation/London: Scala, 240 pp., $60.00

On October 15, 1542, a baby was born to a fugitive prince and his fifteen-year-old wife in the Sindhi desert town of Umarkot. The prince had been driven from his throne in Delhi, and fleeing westward through the wastes of Rajasthan toward Persia, he survived by eating horsemeat boiled in the helmets of his last bodyguards. Nothing about the circumstances of the birth looked promising, yet the horoscope cast for the child by his father was auspicious in every detail—and rightly so, as it turned out.

For the child born in the desert was the future Mughal Emperor Akbar (1542–1605), the greatest ruler of his remarkable dynasty, who in time not only restored the lands lost by his father, the Emperor Humayun (1508– 1556), but laid the foundations for what would grow to be the greatest and most populous of all Muslim empires. At their peak, the Mughals ruled over some 100 million subjects—five times the number ruled by their Ottoman rivals, and many times that ruled by their immediate westerly neighbors, the Safavids of Isfahan in Iran.

In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the great bustling Mughal cities are revealed to Adam after the Fall as future wonders of God’s creation. To a man of Milton’s generation, this was no understatement, for Lahore dwarfed any city in the West: “The city is second to none, either in Asia or in Europe,” thought the Portuguese Jesuit Father Antonio Monserrate,

with regard to size, population, and wealth. It is crowded with merchants, who foregather there from all over Asia…. There is no art or craft useful to human life which is not practised there…. The citadel alone…has a circumference of nearly three miles.1

From the ramparts of that citadel—the Lahore fort—Akbar ruled over most of India, all of what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh, and much of Afghanistan. For their impoverished contemporaries in the West, the Mughals became symbols of luxury and might—attributes with which the word “mogul” is still loaded.

But if the Mughals represented Islamic rule at its most magnificent, they also defined Islam at its most open-minded, tolerant, and syncretic. Unlike the Ottomans or the Safavids, who ruled largely Muslim polities, the Mughal Empire was effectively built in partnership with India’s Hindu majority, and succeeded as much through diplomacy as by brute force: Akbar in particular was a true humanist who strove for the reconciliation of his Hindu and Muslim subjects, and managed to unite them in the service of a coherent multireligious state.

As emperor, Akbar promoted Hindus at all levels of his administration, married a Rajput princess, and entrusted his army to his former Hindu opponent, Raja Man Singh of Jaipur. He ended the jizya tax levied only on non-Muslims, ordered the translation of the Sanskrit classics into Persian, codified minority rights, and filled his court with Hindu and Muslim artists and intellectuals. Akbar personally adopted many Hindu and yogic practices, and even became a vegetarian, criticizing meat-eaters for having converted “their inner sides, where reside the mysteries of Divinity, into a burial ground of animals.”2 So great an impression did all this make on his Hindu subjects that in some of the Bardic traditions of Rajasthan, Akbar came to be equated with the Hindu divinity Lord Ram.

More remarkable still to a modern world lazily used to thinking of Islam and Christianity as sworn and eternal enemies, both Akbar and his son Jahangir (1569–1627) were enthusiastic devotees of Jesus and his mother Mary, something they did not see as being in the least at variance with their Muslim faith. The main gate of the principal mosque at Akbar’s capital of Fatehpur Sikri still bears the following inscription:

Jesus, Son of Mary (on whom be peace) said: The World is a Bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for eternity; but the World endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer, for the rest is unseen.

Recent scholarship on the Mughals has also emphasized another, no less surprising aspect of their court, and one that again goes against all the usual preconceptions of Muslim rule. For contrary to all stereotypes, it seems that Mughal women were better educated and had a far more central part in court and diplomatic life than has previously been recognized. Women in Iran and the Arab world were always more confined and less able to act in the public sphere than in India, where notions of purdah and ideas about the seclusion of women were always less central to notions of male honor. As a result, Muslim women in India have always been more prominent in politics than their sisters in the Middle East.3

Three books have recently been published which in very different ways all emphasize the degree to which the rule of the Mughals resists all our received ideas of what a Muslim empire should be like. Goa and the Great Mughal, a collection of essays accompanying a recent exhibition in Lisbon, shows the surprisingly close spiritual, artistic, and intellectual relationship that existed between the Mughals and the Portuguese, especially the Jesuits. Ruby Lal’s new book on Mughal women, Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World, describes a female world quite at odds with the usual image of harem life as a place of orgiastic sexual pleasure for men, and of harsh and exploitative confinement for women; while Ebba Koch’s new study, The Complete Taj Mahal, gives an authoritative account of the origins, methods of construction, and complex symbolism of the greatest masterpiece of Mughal architecture, one which was built by an emperor in memory of his beloved wife—something that in itself defies the usual image of the place of women in Muslim society.

In 1580 the Emperor Akbar invited to his court near Agra a party of Portuguese Jesuit priests from Goa. According to one account, their arrival caused a sensation:

On entering the city they became the cynosure of all eyes on account of their strange attire. Everyone stopped and stared in great surprise and perplexity, wondering who these strange-looking, unarmed men might be, with their long black robes, their curious caps, their shaven faces, and their tonsured heads.

Soon, however, it was the turn of the Portuguese to be surprised. The Emperor allowed them to set up a chapel in his palace, where they exhibited two paintings of the Madonna and Child before an excited crowd. To the astonishment of the Jesuits, Akbar prostrated himself before the images of Jesus. Akbar took a particular interest in Jesus’ function as messiah and questioned the Jesuits closely about the Last Judgment and whether Christ would be the judge. Akbar also showed his appreciation of his guests by listening to madrigals and putting on Portuguese garb—“a scarlet cloak with gold fastenings…[and he] ordered his sons also to don the same dress, together with Portuguese hats.”

The Jesuits were soon persuaded to take part in the religious discussions held at the court, debating with holy men from all of India’s different religions, each of whom was invited to make the case for his particular understanding of the metaphysical. The presence of the Jesuits at the Mughal court, and the dialogue they engaged in, is the subject of several fascinating essays in Goa and the Great Mughal. Perhaps the most striking is by Gauvin Alexander Bailey, a remarkable young Canadian art historian4 who writes that in the history of the misunderstandings and misrepresentations in encounters of Muslims and Christians, Akbar’s court was a “brilliant exception”:

In an atmosphere comparable to Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Platonic Academy in Florence a century earlier, these enlightened [Mughal] rulers invited scholars and priests from around the world to their court, hosting them in their palaces and fielding weekly interfaith debates into the small hours of the morning. Operating in a spirit of experimentation, creativity and receptiveness, the emperors and their distinguished guests engaged in cultural dialogues of the highest intellectual calibre, expounding in the texts and traditions of faiths as varied as Judaism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, and occasionally finding similarities and connections between them…. Although it should be stressed that the Jesuits and the Muslim mullahs rarely agreed on the key tenets of their faiths, the emperors themselves openly tried to bridge the gap between the two religions and bring their teachings into harmony. In the history of Muslim– Christian relations, few encounters were as tolerant or as culturally rewarding.

Goa and the Great Mughal also demonstrates very well the degree to which Portuguese embassies radically changed the course of Mughal art, a subject well covered in excellent essays by two of the leading scholars on Mughal painting, Milo Beach and Amina Okada. Akbar had always been fond of painting, an art much patronized by his father Humayun, who believed that artists “were the delight of all the world.” Early in his reign, Akbar had made it clear that he had no use for ultra-orthodox Muslim opinion that objected to depiction of the human form. “There are many that hate painting,” he wrote,

but such men I dislike. It appears to me as if a painter had a quite peculiar means of recognizing God; for a painter in sketching anything that has life, and in devising its limbs, one after the other, must come to feel that he cannot bestow individuality upon his work, and is thus forced to think of God, the giver of life.5

Akbar soon gave an ambitious commission to his court painters to produce an illustrated version of the great oral epic the Hamzanama. Before this project, the Mughal miniature painting atelier contained only two artists, both of whom his father Humayun had lured to India from Persia. By commissioning no fewer than 1,400 huge illustrations—the largest single commission in Mughal history—the atelier was forced to train more than a hundred Indian artists in the Persian miniature style; many of them were apparently Hindu painters from the newly conquered province of Gujarat. The resulting volumes took more than fifteen years to produce and effectively gave birth to an independent Mughal miniature tradition.6

In the illustrations, one can see the two worlds of the Mughals—India and the Persianate world of Timurid Central Asia—coming together. Some of the illustrations are purely Persian in style: flat linear forms remarkable for their precise geometric perfection. Other pages are wholly Indian in spirit: the palate is brighter and the colors more saturated, and there is a love of the natural world that is very Indian. In some of the most interesting images, the two styles can clearly be seen merging for the first time.

It was not long before the European Christian images brought to the court by the Portuguese also began to make their influence shown. This was especially so when Akbar sent a return embassy to the Portuguese colony of Goa in 1575, including “many clever craftsmen…in order that…rare crafts be imported” into India. Akbar ordered the craftsmen to make copies of Portuguese reliquaries and altar retables, but in particular he got his painters to reproduce engravings of religious subjects in the Portuguese Bibles and Books of Hours. In this way, not only did Mughal painters learn about perspective and landscape painting from the European images brought to the court, they also learned the art of portraiture—something quite new in Indian art. “His Majesty himself sat for his likeness,” wrote Abu’l Fazl, Akbar’s friend and biographer, “and also ordered to have likenesses taken of all the grandees of the realm. An immense album was thus formed—those who have passed away received a new life, and those who are still alive have immortality promised to them.”

  1. 1

    See Michael Fisher’s excellent new compilation Visions of Mughal India: An Anthology of European Travel Writing (I.B. Tauris, 2007), p. 57. Like all empires at their most self-confident, the Mughals were not slow to celebrate their own power and magnificence, and the official Mughal chronicles, like the Mughal’s profile miniature portraits, can appear somewhat one-dimensional. With their long fawning lists of gifts, processions, uniforms, and fine jewels, these authorized court productions sometimes make one feel in danger of being suffocated under landslides of silk, diamonds, and lapis lazuli. For this reason, the dissonant witness provided by European travelers to the Mughal court offer a perfect counterpoint to the Mughals’ own writings, and travel accounts like the ones collected in Fisher’s book, for all their errors and occasional tall stories, provide sharper and certainly livelier pictures of Mughal India than the unctuous pages of the court historians.

  2. 2

    There are some fascinating passages on Akbar’s vegetarianism—as well as a study of his religious and mystical ideas—in a collection of essays edited by the veteran Indian Mughal scholar Irfan Habib: Akbar and His India (Oxford University Press, 1997). There are also many interesting details to be found in Tristram Stuart’s fascinating and thoroughly researched Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times (Norton, 2007).

  3. 3

    There are a number of rare cases of queens in the Arab world such as Asma Bint Shihab al-Sulayhiyya of eleventh-century Yemen. See Fatima Mernissi’s fascinating study, The Forgotten Queens of Islam (University of Minnesota Press, 1993). But such figures are far more frequently encountered in Islamic India where there are a surprising number of cases of very powerful Indian Muslim queens: Razia Sultana in thirteenth-century Delhi, or Chand Bibi and Dilshad Agha, the two warrior queens of sixteenth-century Bijapur, the first of whom was famous for her horsemanship, while the latter was renowned for her prowess as an artillerywoman and an archer, personally shooting in the eye from atop her citadel Safdar Khan, who had the temerity to attack her kingdom. There is a good study of both the latter women in Asiya Begum, Society and Culture under the Bijapur Sultans (unpublished Ph.D., University of Mysore, 1983), pp. 62–63.

  4. 4

    Bailey’s Art on the Jesuit Missions in Asia and Latin America, 1542–1773 (University of Toronto Press, 2001) contains the best modern account of the Jesuits’ mission to the Mughal court, as well as fine descriptions of their work in Japan and China, and the interestingly hybrid art and architecture it produced.

  5. 5

    Quoted in Susan Stronge’s fine new survey of the Mughal miniature tradition, Painting for the Mughal Emperor: The Art of the Book, 1560–1660 (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2002), one of the best available introductions to the study of Mughal art. See also Amina Okada’s excellent Imperial Mughal Painters: Indian Miniatures from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Paris: Flammarion, 1992).

  6. 6

    A comprehensive new study of the Hamzanama was published by John William Seyller in 2002, The Adventures of Hamza: Paintings and Storytelling in Mughal India (Sackler Gallery/Smithsonian/Azimuth), to coincide with an exhibition at the Freer Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum which brought the surviving pages of Akbar’s Hamzanama together for the first time since the dispersion of the Imperial Mughal library in the eighteenth century.

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